My Kentucky Kitchen Table was different than most of those that were done for this project due to one simple fact: it was not done in the state of Kentucky, but rather, in my hometown of Santa Claus, Indiana. So, for the rest of this post, I will refer to the meal as the Indiana Kitchen Table. In a quick preview, the meal went very well and smoothly, and the conversations flowed well with some great content in the discussions, with credit given to the fact that while I may not have known everyone there, everyone else knew each other, which heavily contributed to the conversation not running dry. Beforehand, I was a little nervous that it wouldn’t go well at all, but in retrospect, it was a great experience to pick the brains of others when it comes to citizenship and democracy as a whole and caused me to do some reflection and deeper thinking of society.
The dinner took place at the home at the home of my girlfriend, Kate, who had family friends over who I had not gotten to meet yet. Her family insisted on making the meal rather than everyone bringing a dish (delicious Stromboli and salad), yet the family friends, who love to bake, still brought a cake for dessert. There was a total of nine people at the dinner: Kate, Ray, Denise, Spencer, Kelsey, Kylee, Ray, and Colleen. Kate is a senior at the high school I am from, and plans on attending Western next year. Ray, her father, is an eighth-grade history teacher, and Denise, Kate’s mother, works at a local hospital. Spencer is a graduate student at the University of Kentucky who is in dental school and plans on being a dentist, and his wife, Kelsey, who is one of Kate’s sisters, is also a student at the University of Kentucky and is in PA school. Both are going to graduate soon. Kylee, the other sister, graduated from WKU last year, and now is living in New York City and works at a marketing firm. There was another Ray at the dinner who works in finance, and his wife, Colleen, owns her own travel agency; Colleen and her husband have been all over the world. Ray and Colleen are close friends of Ray and Denise, and I had not gotten the pleasure of meeting them yet, nor have I had much deep conversation with her sisters and brother-in-law as they are well into their dependent lives. The dinner was a great opportunity to meet Ray and Colleen and also to get to know Kate’s family members better.
The group lacked in diversity as far as race goes, as all members are white. However, they had diversity in some other areas, such as of age, experience, field, and economic status. Ray and Denise are of middle class, while Ray and Colleen are more towards upper middle class. Kylee, Kelsey, and Spencer are all fresh into their independent lives, and Kelsey and Spencer will contract large amounts of debt due to their graduate school expenses. Ray and Denise are in their upper 40’s, along with Ray and Colleen; Spencer and Kelsey are in their upper 20’s, while Kylee is in her lower 20’s; meanwhile, Kate and I are 18 and 19, respectively.
Once dinner was served and after we all prayed as a group, we started to eat and general small talk ensued. Simple questions such as “What class is this project for? What are you going to gather from this project?” immediately were asked. After answering these, I responded with a question of my own, and decided it would be best if we addressed the main subject and effectively broke the ice before relying on some of the other questions offered on our handout packets. I delved straight into the topic at hand: beyond voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does citizenship mean to all of you? Right away, Kate’s father, Ray, straightened up to answer. Ray strongly believes in being an active citizen, and participating in our democracy is a very important part of that belief. He spoke of several actions one is obligated to do as a citizen in his view, such as advocating for stances on issues, calling your state representative, and being educated and well read on the current state of problems and issues, among other things. Collen added on to this by mentioning that we can exercise our right to protest. These obvious suggestions did not strike me as peculiar or extensively thought provoking; while they are correct ways to be active in a democracy and a citizen, I yearned for deeper and more intricate responses. Spencer was the first person that supplied my yearning. He agreed with all of the suggestions Ray made, while also adding that one can also participate in events in their respective communities in order to make practical contributions to strengthening our society and becoming closer as a people. Once he made that comment, my brain triggered a connection already between our class and this dinner: what Spencer had said could be one of many possible answers to the central question of “how do we live well together?” I pointed this out to the group, and in reflection, this was one of my favorite points made the entire evening as it incited me to think further on this question, which I will get to further on in this writing.
After these points were made, Kelsey addressed a different side of this question: rather than ways to participate, she answered what citizenship meant to her. From her view, being a citizen is more than how one can participate in democracy. She views it as how we act in how communities, how we treat and respect one another, and what we do to be there for each other in times of struggle and prosperity. Being a good citizen is more than completing objectives as if they are on a checklist, but rather doing the intangible things, such as being kind, loving and respecting all people, regardless of views, race, sexual orientation, gender, and religion. Once again, this made me think of our central question of how do we live well together. Kylee, Kate, and Colleen agreed with this viewpoint heavily, and easily concurred with Kelsey’s opinion. The men of the group agreed, but dissented that while being kind and respectful is important, it does not practically solve the problems that our nation faces.
As I said earlier, the entire conversation provoked me to do some much deeper thought on the matter. Hearing the perspectives of other people, even those who are not familiar to me, provided insight that I had not thought of in a realistic sense. I come from a close-knit hometown where people participate and are involved, and everyone is kind and respectful of another; while I may have been living in that type of environment, I had never had the thought of what may result from applying it to communities and people all across the country cross my mind. The way that I see the current state of our nation, people get so heavily wrapped up into political parties and nationwide issues, and rather than doing practical applications to make these wicked problems better, we as a society instead get absorbed into debate. While nationwide issues are of great importance and political parties are an efficient way to channel our stances and approaches of handling issues, they are even furthermore complicated and can take extremely long amounts of time to see change and progression.
Much like Spencer pointed out, I believe that we as people rather can focus on our individual towns, counties, and cities, and involve ourselves to make more productive improvements. We can get involved in service opportunities to one another, engage in deliberative discourse, or help to organize, promote, and effectively run neighborhood events that can bind the people living in them together. Rather than waiting for a never-ending concept of “others to take action” or an overarching body to pursue these endeavors, the people who make up our individual localities can take up the mantle of progressing society in the ways such as Spencer mentioned. Once we have stronger individual communities, others can follow suit, and this could attribute to amending nationwide issues in the long run. If we can live better together through engaging in our hometowns, we can lean on one another and can collectively cooperate on the other central questions, such as how we should solve problems, and how we can have more say over ourselves.
Moreover, we can enhance our personal communities not only through how we involve ourselves in our communities, but also how we treat and respect one another in them. Much like what Kelsey said, if we give each other respect, kindness, honesty, and fairness, this can enhance how we live well together, and can make our communities closer knit and supportive, much like the one I was raised in. Through this type of relationship, solving problems, coordinating events to help solve issues, and other activities can be easier achieved, and the other two central questions can be easily addressed.
After my thoughts had been stimulated, the deep and introspective dinner conversation soon faded and formed charismatic and rich togetherness, as those who knew each other caught up and the family friends enjoyed their evening together. I felt as if we were starting the beginnings of answering that crucial central question right there through our fellowship together, and a project that initially seemed impractical and unappealing to me now was a pleasant and eye-opening experience, full of learning that I had not expected to encounter: from insight ranging on what being an active citizen looks like– according to Ray who is active in his democracy– such as writing representatives, advocating stances on issues, and being educated on the state of problems and the options to approach them; methods that may seem more time efficient and personal, much like Spencer mentioned, such as coordinating community events or serving in your respective communities and becoming involved; to what his wife, Kelsey, had to say—that being a citizen is more than performing actions or providing service, but can also include how we treat one another and truly live well together. Life is full of learning. We must seize every opportunity we can in order to better ourselves as a society. Whether that be at formal, academic deliberations, or at simple Kentucky—or rather, Indiana—kitchen tables.